At last count, I've got 10 e-mail accounts and growing -- and I only pay for one of these with anything more substantial than eyeball time. Now that just about every Internet search-engine company offers free, Web-based e-mail -- and so many libraries, workplaces and schools offer public Web access -- there's little obstacle for you not to have an e-mail address somewhere, regardless of your computer-ownership status.
The benefits of Web-based e-mail are obvious: If your family has a lot of people using one machine, everybody can have a separate account without having to pay an Internet provider for extra mailboxes. If you travel around a lot, Web e-mail is easy to check from out of town. Oh, yeah, and it's free. (Even if you don't have access to a swift, new Web-surfing machine, you can turn any old Windows-tolerant PC with a modem into an e-mailbox by using Juno's free -- but non-Web-accessible -- e-mail software, which comes with its own dialer program.)
Over the last two years, free e-mail services have started sprouting up all over the place. Where once a search engine like Excite or AltaVista was content to help you find stuff, now a free e-mail option (along with the inevitable weather forecast, news update and stock quotes) is mandatory.
Unless you have even more free time than me, however, you don't want 10 free-mail accounts; you only need one. The trick is choosing that one. A big consideration in making that choice -- as trivial as it might seem -- is simply fashion: What do you want your address to look like? As a friend of mine told me (via e-mail), she went with Microsoft's Hotmail over Yahoo's mail service because she'd rather be thought of as "hot" than as a "yahoo." On such minute matters of taste are (paper) fortunes made and lost on the Web.
One of my favorite free e-mail services, for instance, is a small one based in Australia, Start, which I get a kick out of mainly because of the .au suffix of my e-mail address there, which indicates, to people who pay attention to these sorts of things, that my e-mail is coming from Down Under. Yes, this service does occasionally have a longer delivery time (though technically, it shouldn't), sometimes taking a few hours (the other services rarely take longer than a few minutes to pass mail to each other), so this is not a service you'd want to use for a lively e-conversation.
It may be a little odd at first to have your e-mail stashed away in cyberspace, rather than parked on your hard drive, but the extra options you can find among the free Web e-mail services are often as good, if not better, than what you'd find elsewhere.
Although you can't compose e-mail "offline" as easily as you can with a "normal" e-mail program, what's surprising is how complete most of these free e-mail accounts are. Any of these services will, for example, let you pick up your mail from an existing, "real" account, filter mail according to your preferences and automatically attach a signature to your letters; if you like, most will even send you reminders of holidays, anniversaries or other special events.
Web e-mail programs that are linked with other services often add a measure of value to your Web experience. Yahoo will send updates of Net events and links to coverage of breaking news to your e-mail account. Yahoo and Hotmail both feature connections to their own classified ads -- if what you're looking for isn't up for grabs at the moment, you can fill out a form and get an e-mail fired at your respective accounts whenever the item you seek goes on sale.
One other key advantage: If you've switched "real" e-mail accounts often enough to learn that people frequently don't update their databases the first (and second) time you send that note with the "new e-mail address!!" subject header, these services are handy because you can keep the same address, no matter what Internet provider you're using.
The main drawback to Web-based e-mail is, well, the Web -- using a browser to view your mail is just as slow or fast (slow, in my case) as surfing the rest of the Web. These services also are vulnerable to the usual browser-compatibility bugs: Yahoo's e-mail service had a bug that wouldn't let me log on using Internet Explorer 3.01 on a Mac, and USA.Net sometimes wouldn't let me log on at all. Excite's mail service occasionally gave me "script error" messages on pages when I checked my mail using a PC with Internet Explorer 3.02.
As with so much stuff on the Web, these services are all free thanks to advertising. Most of these services ask you to answer marketing-profile questions -- where do you live, how much do you make and so on -- for their advertisers' benefit; Juno's interrogation is by far the most prying.
Likewise, the Web-based services feature easily ignored banner ads on their pages, but the ads in Juno's program are a little more intrusive, often arriving in the form of bulk e-mail from the company's president or pop-up ads that flash on your screen, America Online-style, before you can get to your mail. Hotmail's account offers an extra, different form of advertising, bouncing you to Microsoft's "Start" page whenever you log out -- a not-too-subtle plug for its owner.
But ads and marketechture aside, let's hear it for free e-mail. Tell you what I want now: free Internet access. And how about free cable, while you're at it?
-- HOTMAIL: http://www.hotmail.com -- The granddaddy of the free, Web-based e-mail services, Hotmail has a clean interface and reliable delivery. The only drawback is that the address here (hotmail.com) is so common, it's become a little boring to be a Hotmail user.
-- JUNO: http://www.juno.com (or call 1-800-654-5866 to have the software mailed to you on disk) -- Juno's ads are a little on the intrusive side, but, since you don't need Web access, this is the most "free" service available. This program set up without a problem on my home PC and can work on almost any modem-equipped machine able to boot up Windows (but is, alas, unavailable for Macs). The interface isn't exactly slick-looking, but it is easy to use.
-- EXCITE: http://www.mailexcite.com -- Excite's mail service has a nice, clean interface, but delivery was on the slow side, sometimes taking a few hours for a piece of mail to get through. Note that there's no escaping the ad banner: While most other services let you scroll down past the ad, the ones here perch in a frame that sticks to the top of your screen as you scroll through your inbox.
-- USA.NET: http://www.usa.net -- USA.Net includes a certain amount of cheese in its interface. The log-in page, for example, sports a mission statement about how it is "dedicated to creating the Post Office of the Future"; before you can get to your inbox, you hit a page that exhorts you to recruit your friends or features letters from satisfied customers. I also occasionally received server error messages while using this account.
-- START: http://www.start.com.au -- This is the main free service I actually use, in addition to Hotmail -- mostly because I think it's cool to bounce e-mail to Australia en route to friends down the street from me. I did experience some mail delays with this, but I liked the clean design (and the British spellings were a fun change of pace).
-- ALTAVISTA: http://altavista.iname.com -- AltaVista's mail service is run by a company called iName, which gives you a few choices about what you want your address to be. Free options for your address include "mindless.com" (one of my personal faves), or "earthling.net." For some mysterious reason, notes sent to my address here had a habit of being triplicated before showing up in my inbox.
-- YAHOO: http://mail.yahoo.com -- Lots of folks out there still probably don't use anything other than Yahoo's directory service to find stuff on the Web. If this description fits you, you might as well use Yahoo's mail, too. There are no obnoxious banner ads here, the mail is reliable and the look of the screen is nicely customizable.